The Michigan State Spartans have an opportunity on Saturday. A win against the Ohio State Buckeyes puts Michigan State at the top of the Big East Standings and in position for a trip to the Big Ten Championship game in Indianapolis (with another win over Penn State to close out the year). But taking down the Buckeyes is going to be a Herculean task. Ohio State is the Big Ten’s top team this season (once again), and is playing its best football late in the year.
To help us learn a little bit more about Ohio State — and what makes the Buckeyes so good — we spoke with Gene Ross, managing editor at Land-Grant Holy Land — SB Nation’s destination for The Ohio State University athletics.
Can a struggling Michigan State defense actually stop Ohio State? Offensively, can the Spartans move the ball on the Buckeyes? What has made OSU so dominant over the years? Gene answers these questions and more.
1. Offensively, Ohio State averages 46.3 points per game and 550.4 yards of total offense per game, including 196.8 rushing yards and 353.6 passing yards. The Michigan State defense does a good job of limiting points (22.5) and rushing yards (115.2) per game, but has an abysmal passing defense (329 yards allowed per game). How can the Spartans limit the Buckeyes’ offense, especially through the air?
Gene: When Ohio State’s offense has struggled this year, it has mostly been because of unforced errors or questionable play-calling on the Buckeyes’ own end. Head coach Ryan Day is a great offensive mind, but he has a tendency to overthink himself sometimes in these big games. As you are likely well aware, the Buckeyes’ trio of Garrett Wilson, Chris Olave and Jaxon Smith-Njigba make up the best wide receiver corps in the country, and so it has made life very easy for first-year starter CJ Stroud at quarterback. They also have a very talented running back in true freshman TreVeyon Henderson, but the rushing attack has been hit or miss with the offensive line struggling in the run blocking department. I think the key to slowing down this offense has to be limiting the explosive plays. Pretty much every skill player on the field is a home run threat, but Ohio State has had some struggles in the red zone of late. The Spartans can’t allow those sub-two minute scoring drives that the Buckeyes have been so good at this year, and must force them to really work for every yard.
2. On the defensive side of the football Ohio State is somewhat similar to Michigan State — allows yardage through the air (261.5 yards per game), but limits points (20.5 per game) and rushing yards (105.9 per game). Do you expect Payton Thorne, Kenneth Walker III and the rest of the Spartans to move the ball on the Buckeyes, and what is the best way to attack the defense?
Gene: Ohio State’s defense hasn’t exactly been spectacular this year. It is better than it was earlier in the year when the Buckeyes lost to Oregon, but it is still not an especially strong unit — especially in the secondary. The Buckeyes have statistically been solid against the run this season, but I don’t know how much can be taken from that when they haven’t played a team with much of a rushing attack since that loss to the Ducks. I do expect Kenneth Walker III to have a pretty good day on the ground, but the easiest way to attack this Ohio State defense is with the short, quick passing game. The Buckeyes have had an especially tough time guarding the middle of the field, where the team’s best linebacker is a converted running back. Ohio State has been solid at avoiding explosive plays on defense, but you can dink and dunk this unit to death all day — much like Purdue did in the second half last week.
3. In your opinion, what has made Ohio State so dominant over the past decade or two and a destination for top recruits to enroll at? How have the Buckeyes maintained the success for so long?
Gene: The answer to your question lies in the question itself: recruiting. Urban Meyer really changed the recruiting culture at Ohio State, and quickly turned it into a place that the nation’s top prospects want to be. Ryan Day has picked things up right where Meyer left off, and honestly looks like he is doing an even better job in the recruiting department. It helps to be an established power in college football, as it truly is a sport where the rich get richer. Meyer made Columbus a top destination for premier talent to be showcased on the biggest stage, and Day has continued it. Winning multiple Big Ten titles with a better-than-most shot at a College Football Playoff berth each year certainly makes the job that much easier on the recruiting front, so success has bred success in that regard. Especially now in the era of Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) being one of the sport’s biggest brand has its perks.
4. Is there one under-the-radar player on offense and one on defense who Michigan State fans should watch out for on Saturday?
Gene: Ohio State doesn’t do a ton of rotating on offense, and the guys that play get utilized a ton. Jaxon Smith-Njigba was once an under-the-radar guy as the third man behind future first-rounders Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave, but he is now the team’s leading receiver, having already passed the 1,000-yard mark. Among guys who don’t start, I would have to say a fun player to look out for on offense is backup running back Miyan Williams. Standing at 5-foot-8, 225 pounds, Williams — nicknamed “Chop” — is a change-of-pace back from the starter Henderson. He is your prototypical bowling ball running back, with his small but powerful frame allowing him to break tackles and bounce off defenders.
On defense, a pair of guys to look out for are five-star freshmen defensive ends JT Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer. While neither technically start for the Buckeyes, they both play a good chunk of the snaps at either edge spot. As two of the nation’s premier edge talents in the 2021 class, Tuimoloau is much more of a big, strong run-stopper while Sawyer is your classic pass-rusher. Zach Harrison and Tyreke Smith will be the first guys out there on defense, but Ohio State likes to rotate heavily along its defensive line to keep guys fresh, so you will see a good amount of the two young guns.
5. Certainly, Michigan State has spoiled Ohio State’s seasons in the past. How does Ohio State as a program, and Buckeyes fans as well, view Michigan State? Is this considered a rivalry for OSU, or just more so one of those pesky programs that has sometimes been a thorn in the side of the Buckeyes?
Gene: I’ll tell you what, attending that game in 2015 as a student and sitting in the cold, wet stands watching Urban Meyer completely forget how to call an offense was not the most fun I’ve ever had in the Horseshoe by any means, so I don’t have the fondest memories of Michigan State. However, I do fondly remember the game in East Lansing in 2014 that helped propel Ohio State toward the CFP and an eventual national title, so the series between the two teams has gone both ways.
I wouldn’t say this is a rivalry by any means, as the Buckeyes’ only true rival is obviously Michigan, but I would give the Spartans more credit than just being a pesky program. The last handful of lopsided matchups aside, I would put Michigan State in a similar tier as Penn State, as a team that generally plays Ohio State tough regardless of the talent differential or what the Las Vegas odds say. The Spartans were always well-coached under Mark Dantonio, and it looks like that will remain the same under Mel Tucker. Especially with the way things are going for that program right now, I’d say Michigan State is a team that Ohio State has to look at as a serious threat in the East year in and year out.
6. Bonus: Do you see any path for Michigan State to win this game? Score prediction?
Gene: I think this one will be high-scoring, but I think a blueprint for beating the Buckeyes has certainly been laid out by some of their previous opponents, and it’s one I think the Spartans are built for. The key to beating Ohio State is to keep its offense off the field, especially if you don’t have an exceptional pass defense. Michigan State would be best suited running its offense through Walker as the Spartans eat up clock and shorten the game, giving the Buckeyes less margin for error when they have the ball. It is generally tough to keep this dynamic offense under 35-40 points per contest, and I wouldn’t recommend getting in a shootout with the way Ohio State has been throwing the ball lately. If the Spartans can control the clock here, they have a very legitimate shot to pull off the upset.
The 20-point spread set by Vegas is far too rich for my blood, especially because I don’t really believe in the Buckeye defense. I think we are looking somewhere in the neighborhood of a 49-37 type of affair in Columbus, in favor of the home team. If Michigan State gets the win here, I think it would look much more like a 31-27 sort of game where the Spartans limit Ohio State’s possessions and force them into a few turnovers.
Sparty is a really good team this year, and I’m looking forward to what should be a fun matchup!
A sincere thank you to Gene for providing such insightful and thorough responses. You can follow Gene on Twitter, and to stay up to date on what is happening with Ohio State, follow Land-Grant Holy Land as well.
Head over to Land-Grant Holy Land for my responses to Gene’s questions.